Medical Personnel, Supplies Arrive in Haiti from Pittsburgh

January 25, 2010

By Dennis B. Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Post Gazette Image

Haiti Personnel (Gretchen Herda) Departing from Pittsburgh

Photo: Gretchen Herda, a nurse practitioner from Freedom, relaxes in a baggage cart and chats with Sharon Dennison, a nurse from Clarksburg, W.Va. before departing yesterday from Pittsburgh. The women were part of a mercy mission that brought 30,000 pounds of medical equipment and supplies to Haiti. The pair will work at the New Testament Mission in La Croix.


PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti – A 79-member medical team from Pittsburgh and beyond arrived here Sunday night with 30,000 pounds of medical supplies in a race against time, sickness and decay in this earthquake-stricken city.

The return flight carried 80 more orphans, children released at the last minute to fly to Florida and, from there, to families waiting across the United States.

“We did it,” beamed James Bouchard, the Pittsburgh businessman who co-sponsored last night’s mercy flight. At first, he had expected to return only with exhausted relief workers after the Haitian government balked at any further release of orphans.

He learned of the change in policy moments after the flight landed at Touissant Airport.

Many of the doctors expect to see medicine they have never experienced.

Justin Mistovich, an orthopedic surgeon from Allegheny General Hospital traveled here his wife, Keili Meyer. At 29 he has been a surgeon a few years. He wasn’t sure where on the island he is being sent, but knows what he sees – and does – will mark a shift in his career.

One colleague who was already there reported back on the stark truth of medicine in the western hemisphere’s most impoverished disaster scene.

“She did 34 surgeries in 24 hours,” he said. “She did 13 amputations by herself.”

That is the grim reality of survival on this island, where 200,000 are feared dead and hundreds of thousands sick and injured and without clean water, food and common antiseptics. Wounds that would heal in Pittsburgh, or limbs that would be saved, are being sacrificed on tables in dimly lit rooms.

“You can’t spend $10,000, $20,000 to save a limb that’s on its way out,” said Dr. Mistovich. “The most important thing is to save lives. It’s going to change the whole way I practice.”

Sunday night’s flight was put together by James Bouchard. He is CEO of Esmark, a steel and oil production company. Mrs. Bouchard staffed a desk at the lobby of Atlantic Aviation, inspected passports, filled out lists, and checked in doctors who came in from AGH, UPMC, Heritage Valley Hospital and West Penn Hospital to volunteer at sites ringing this stricken city.

Mr. Bouchard said he made a snap decision to ship supplies while watching the disaster unfold last week.

“I called Jeb Blougrund at AGH and said we’ve got to get some supplies there,” he said. Local companies, including Mylan Labs and Medco ponied up supplies. Hospitals sent out word for more doctors.

Mr. Bouchard estimated he had as much as $15 million in equipment and supplies on the chartered Boeing 737 that was wheels up at 3:30 p.m. Sunday amid a driving rain.

Mr. Bouchard and Highmark split the costs. He didn’t give an estimate, but the two sides are footing the bill for everything that wasn’t donated – the airplane, ground support on the island and security.

“I’ve done alright,” Mr. Bouchard said as he prowled the aisles of the plane. “I’m just trying to give back.”

As the plane put down in Haiti, Mr. Bouchard took over the cabin speaker system with praise for the volunteers, advice on how to proceed and a simple request: “Save as many lives as you can.”

The volunteer nature of the effort was evident. Students from Imani Christian Academy and Quaker Valley School District loaded gear into the plane’s belly, into its overhead bins. Waist-high medical devices were strapped into empty seats.

“There are people down there that need help that will love the stuff we’re bringing,” said Antonio Robinson, a 17-year-old from Imani as he lugged things onto the plane. “I’m happy I’m part.”

But Antonio and his school pals weren’t there for the arrival. That was limited to the adult volunteers. Ten more of them, members of a medical response team from Florida, were scooped up in a brief stop at Fayetteville, N.C., before landing at Port au Prince as night fell on this battered city.

Getting the gear off the plane became a military operation carried out by civilian surgeons and nurses.

Camera crews were rushed off the plane first to record the event. Next came doctors and others lugging backpacks and boxes, pushing wheeled operating room equipment.

Others clambered into the cargo hold. Volunteers formed a human chain to pass box after box of medicines, fluids, equipment and bandages onto the tarmac.

They had 90 minutes to do it. After that, warned Mr. Bouchard, Air Force officers would close the doors and order the plane into a row for takeoff.

“Anything left on after that stays on the plane,” he warned the volunteers before landing.

Amid the clambering, yet another crew moved off with a bit of stealth. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were onboard, guarding a shipment of narcotics.

It was, Mr. Bouchard agreed, that rarest of moments: government agents smuggling narcotics into the Caribbean.

Highmark CEO Ken Melani took the flight and sat just a row behind boxes of pain medication under constant guard by federal agents onboard.

“We should be able to do 5,000 operations, I’m told, with these narcotics,” he said.

This flight included anesthesiologists, men such as Dr. Michael Vega, of Cabell Hospital in Huntington, W.Va.

He is destined, come this morning, for work at Double Harvest Hospital, a two-room operating facility in the village of Croix du Bouquet, four miles from the airport.

“We heard they were doing 60 to 70 amputations a day at the beginning,” he said.

Dr. Vega and his seatmates, Alan Koester, a surgeon, and nurse practitioner Julie Riffe talked about what they were likely to face, as well as what Haiti is likely to face in the coming years as the legless, the armless resume their lives.

“There’s going to be a generation of people in Haiti now that are going to be limbless from this catastrophe,” Dr.Vega said.

At the least, he hopes to alleviate the pain. At the start, amputations were being rushed through without anesthetic.

“It shouldn’t happen in this century, but it was a situation where peoples’ injuries were so great they had to resort to amputation,” he said.

With the plane emptied of its gear, the volunteers settled in to await the sunlight, when it is safe to travel and begin the healing process.